Whatever Biden chooses to do in Afghanistan will have a lot of downsides. The hope is he picks the least bad option.
President Joe Biden has been presented with three broad options for how to prolong or end America’s involvement in the 20-year Afghanistan War — and all three have significant drawbacks for the administration and the Afghan people.
The first option is to adhere to former President Donald Trump’s deal with the Taliban, which would require Biden to withdraw all remaining 2,500 US troops in Afghanistan by May 1. The second is to negotiate an extension with the insurgent group, allowing American forces to remain in the country beyond early May. And third is to defy the Trump-Taliban pact altogether and keep fighting in Afghanistan with no stated end date.
Each plan has serious pitfalls, experts and US officials say.
If the US leaves in the next three months, it’s likely the Taliban will overrun the US-backed Afghan government and once again make life worse for millions of Afghans, especially women and children.
Staying in Afghanistan just a little bit longer would likely delay that takeover, but would also expend any diplomatic capital the US has left with the Taliban and keep US troops in harm’s way.
Finally, violating the terms of the agreement and remaining indefinitely will almost certainly lead the Taliban to restart its campaign, put on hold ahead of the May 1 deadline, to kill American service members in the country.
“These are all bad options,” said Asfandyar Mir, a Stanford University expert on the Afghanistan War.
Multiple US officials told me in recent days that the administration’s Afghanistan policy review is nearing its end, with one telling me they expect Biden to make a decision “very soon.”
“I don’t know which way the president will go,” said this official, who like others spoke with me on the condition of anonymity to talk freely about a sensitive national security deliberation. Another person familiar with the Afghanistan discussions told me it’s clear a full withdrawal by May 1 is “off the table.”
Public statements from the Biden team offer additional clues as to which way Biden will lean.
Biden promised during the presidential campaign to bring home US combat troops from Afghanistan, but gave himself until the end of his first term to do so (though, importantly, this statement came before the Trump-Taliban deal). He also said he would still potentially keep a small US military presence in the country to continue counterterrorism operations against ISIS and al-Qaeda. That meant it was always possible Biden wouldn’t abide by the terms of the Trump-era deal.
Recent statements by Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin also suggest a full withdrawal may not be on the immediate horizon. A Pentagon summary of his comments during a NATO ministerial last Thursday said Austin had “reassured Allies that the U.S. would not undertake a hasty or disorderly withdrawal from Afghanistan.”
In comments to reporters the following day, Austin added, “[W]e are committed to a responsible and sustainable end to this war, while preventing Afghanistan from becoming a safe haven for terrorist groups … that threaten the interests of the United States and our allies, and ensuring a just and durable end to the long-running conflict.”
The signal many are getting from Austin and others is that Biden will be the fourth president to prolong America’s engagement in Afghanistan, most likely by pushing for an extension to the deadline.
Biden still hasn’t made a decision, though, so it’s worth taking a look at the three options he has in front of him — and why each is fraught with risk and danger.
Option 1: Withdraw all 2,500 US troops by May 1
Few experts or US officials I spoke to believe Biden will adhere to the timeline laid out in the Trump-Taliban peace deal — either because Biden wants to seek a more lasting diplomatic solution to the war in Afghanistan or because his team fears an intensified civil war on the heels of a US withdrawal would make the administration look bad.
In January, Secretary of State Tony Blinken told Afghan President Ashraf Ghani that the US supports diplomatic negotiations between the government and the Taliban. America’s hope is to help “achieve a durable and just political settlement and permanent and comprehensive ceasefire that benefits all Afghans.”
But those talks are barely underway and have little to no chance of ending by the May 1 deadline. Both parties hold opposite positions on key questions — among them, how much power can the Taliban have in Afghanistan’s government? — that likely won’t be reconciled in a few months. What’s more, the Taliban hasn’t stopped killing Afghans or curbed it’s relationship with al-Qaeda.
To ensure those talks proceed instead of stalling out, many experts believe a small American troop presence must remain in the country.
Still, there is a vocal contingent advocating for the US to finally withdraw from Afghanistan after 20 years of war.
“I support leaving by May,” said Adam Weinstein, who served as a Marine in Afghanistan and is now a research fellow at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft in Washington, DC. “The Afghanistan talks may fall apart if we leave, but they also will fall apart if we stay.”
Weinstein acknowledges that the Taliban will surely intensify its civil war with the Afghan government once the US departs, further destabilizing an already bad situation. But that’s likely to happen whenever America withdraws its forces, whether in May or later. “Leaving by May frontloads these risks while not risking American lives,” he told me.
Which leads to the second reason observers doubt Biden will stick to the May withdrawal timeline: Images of a renewed, bloody war after America’s withdrawal plastered on the front pages of newspapers would embarrass the Biden administration. Pressure would mount on the president and his team to reenter the fray to quell the violence, just like many pushed Obama to send US forces back into Iraq to defeat ISIS.
It’s therefore possible that leaving prematurely might lead the US to reenter the conflict again — perhaps with an even larger troop presence.
Weinstein told me he knows that’s a risk and hopes Biden would resist such pressure. There will be problems, but all this comes down to the fact that America hasn’t proven its ability to win the war against the Taliban, even with tens of thousands more troops in the country.
Today, the insurgents control more territory in Afghanistan than they did in 2001 when the US invaded, making it even harder to push for a military victory.
“You could kick the can down the road, or you could accept the limits of US control of ground realities in Afghanistan,” he said.
In other words, leave now and don’t look back.
Option 2: Negotiate an extension with the Taliban, then leave
This is the option most people I spoke with favor and believe Biden will choose.
They argue that withdrawing by May is simply too soon, but that staying indefinitely is also politically and militarily infeasible. Delaying America’s full withdrawal for a few months or even years, then, allows the peace process to play out and for an unhurried US exit from Afghanistan.
“It’s unquestionable that an extension should be negotiated,” said Laurel Miller, who was the acting special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan in the Obama administration.
Simply put, the Afghan government and the Taliban won’t strike a deal by April, but they might if given enough time. Penning an agreement would allow officials in Kabul to lead their country without the major threat of violence, while also giving the Taliban some governing power and global legitimacy.
“There’s reason to believe the Taliban would genuinely negotiate and accept some kind of political settlement [that] satisfies their interests,” said Miller, who’s now at the International Crisis Group.
With such a deal in place, the US and its NATO allies could extricate themselves from Afghanistan without fear their absence would lead to more bloodshed.
This is what Ghani, Afghanistan’s president, and others close to him have been pushing for. After NATO last week said its 5,000 troops wouldn’t leave the country imminently, Ghani said their presence would help provide a “window of opportunity to accelerate the peace process.”
An extension was also the key recommendation in a congressionally mandated report earlier this month from the Afghanistan Study Group, an independent, bipartisan commission of experts co-chaired by retired Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford, former Republican Sen. Kelly Ayotte, and US Institute of Peace President Nancy Lindborg.
But this Goldilocks option has flaws, too.
For example, it’s unclear whether the Taliban would even agree to an extension. Their messaging for America to date, Stanford’s Mir said, is “leave by May 1 or we fight you.” Biden therefore risks adding to the 2,400 dead Americans in Afghanistan if the US overstays its welcome.
And even if it does, staying beyond May 1 would mean Biden chose to prolong America’s engagement despite having a ready-made excuse for withdrawal. That would no doubt anger a lot of people, namely progressives and some on the right, who hoped the Democrat would finally bring the US war effort there to a close.
“What’s worse: Being accused of being too status quo, or being accused of taking risks and having ugly eventualities happen on your watch?” Miller asked, describing the question the Biden team is wrestling with.
There’s also a glaring weakness with this plan: There’s just no guarantee that the Afghan government and the Taliban will actually make a deal. After months or even years of talking, it’s possible neither side will make concessions to the other to hash out a comprehensive peace pact. If that’s the case, US troops will have remained in danger for little to no progress.
Still, experts believe there are ways the US can get the Taliban to agree to an extension and perhaps pave the path toward a negotiated deal. That could include lifting UN and other sanctions on the Taliban, working with Kabul to release some or all of the group’s 7,000 prisoners, and removing the group from the State Department’s terrorist list.
Each of those moves would be politically costly and may end up strengthening the Taliban without eventually striking an agreement.
But for some, taking bold steps to improve the chance of peace after so many years of fighting is worth the risk.
Option 3: Stay in Afghanistan indefinitely
Everyone I spoke with said this is by far the worst option. Continuing the war with no clear end date would keep US troops in harm’s way and further doom any prospects of a negotiated peace, since one of the key reasons the parties are talking is because America said it was leaving soon.
More than that, there’s just no clear path to victory in the war.
As mentioned above, the Taliban today controls more territory than it did when the US invaded in 2001. After 20 years of war, trillions of dollars spent, and tens of thousands of deaths, the US has only managed to achieve what Army Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, humbly described as “a modicum of success” in Afghanistan.
At this point, there’s little reason to expect that the US staying in Afghanistan indefinitely, spending billions more and risking more US lives, will magically improve that outcome. And doing so is just not desirable considering the coronavirus pandemic has killed 500,000 Americans, Iran nears the acquisition of a nuclear bomb, China grows in strength, domestic terrorism threatens the homeland, and more.
So why even discuss this option? It’s not that Biden would pick it, but that he might be forced into it if the limited extension (option 2) fails to actually produce a peace agreement.
Again, few think Biden will withdraw all US troops by May 1, which means he will be keeping US service members in the country with or without the Taliban’s approval. If he does it without their approval, that could lead the insurgents to attack and kill American personnel as they overtake major Afghan cities, perhaps even Kabul.
At that point, withdrawing from Afghanistan would be harder, experts say, because the administration won’t want to look like it’s running away from the fight. A return to a larger war, then, would likely ensue, leading to more death and woes for the millions of Afghans who’ve already suffered tremendously.
“If a negotiated extension fails, there’s not going to be a withdrawal,” said the Quincy Institute’s Weinstein.
If there were a perfect option, the US would have found it by now. It hasn’t, and that’s left Biden with three paths to take, each full of obstacles and risk. It’s a tough spot to be in, but sometimes the options a president has range from horrible to bad.
The hope is he picks the least bad one.